Bel Canto Chamber Singers was founded in the kitchen of Katharine DeBoer, a soprano living in West Hartford, Vermont, in 1977. Over many cups of coffee, DeBoer brainstormed with Beverly Gaylord, a dear friend and noted local pianist, about forming a small ensemble of auditioned singers to perform a varied repertoire of fine choral music. At that time, the Handel Society provided Upper Valley singers with the opportunity to perform major works with orchestra, but DeBoer saw the need for a challenging, more intimate, choral ensemble.
When a young choral conductor, Jane Graham, arrived in the Upper Valley in 1977, DeBoer and Gaylord proposed the idea of a new choral group to her, and Graham enthusiastically signed on as Bel Canto’s first conductor. Gaylord was hired as the first accompanist. Auditions were held at the Frederick Johnson Piano Company in White River Junction, and the first concert, featuring 19 experienced singers, was held at Rollins Chapel on Dartmouth’s campus on December 11, 1977.
After Graham left the Upper Valley in 1979, Bel Canto boasted several outstanding conductors who maintained a consistently high level of performance over the years. In the fall of 1987 DeBoer herself took up the baton during the search for a new conductor. While many conductors have led Bel Canto, Gaylord continued as accompanist for 27 years (1977 to 2004). The one constant has been Richard McGaw, who has sung in the tenor section with Bel Canto since its inception in 1977.
DeBoer left the Upper Valley in 1989 to pursue master's and doctoral degrees, and she forged a career as director of vocal studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. She never lost her love for this region, though, and upon retirement she returned to the Upper Valley and now resides in Bradford, Vermont.
Bel Canto Chamber Singers flourished during the ensuing years, performing whimsical works such as Ivor Davies’s Prayers from the Ark (under the direction of Louis Burkot in 1984), stirring seasonal works such as Vaughan Williams’s Hodie (under the direction of DeBoer in 1987), culturally diverse works such as the Japanese classic piece Ketawang Puspawarna Laras Slendro Pathet Manyura, accompanied by the gamelan (under the direction of Jane Woods in 1994), and grand works such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor (under the direction of Hal Sheeler in 2011).
Bel Canto has performed in venues large and small throughout the Upper Valley, from the Chapel at La Salette Shrine in Enfield, New Hampshire to Spaulding Auditorium at Dartmouth College. The ensemble has sung at various churches, including Congregational churches in Norwich, Lyme, and Lebanon; the Church of Christ at Dartmouth; Our Savior Lutheran Church, Hanover; and the United Methodist Church in Lebanon. In the early years Bel Canto performed at Chandler Music Hall, Randolph, Vermont.; Maxfield Parish Museum, Plainfield, New Hampshire; the Claremont (New Hampshire) Opera House; and the Sawyer Fine Arts Center at Colby Sawyer College, New London, New Hampshire.
Bel Canto Chamber Singers is currently based in Lebanon, New Hampshire, rehearsing and performing at the First Congregational Church in Lebanon. The group has given special performances and open rehearsals at Kendal at Hanover, The Woodlands in Lebanon, and Eastman Residential Community in New Hamphire, and for community organizations such as the Norwich Historical Society.
During 2017, in celebration of its 40th anniversary, Bel Canto commissioned a new work by Texas-based composer Joshua Shank called The Kingdom of the Human Voice which was premiered at Bel Canto’s anniversary concerts in April. To continue the anniversary celebration, Bel Canto commissioned another new work called Magnificat by Etna composer, Travis Ramsey, which was premiered at the group’s December concerts.
Bel Canto Chamber Singers continues to draw experienced singers and appreciative audiences from across the Upper Valley and beyond. The ensemble thrives because of the support and generosity of individuals, businesses, corporations, and foundations from the region who understand that the arts are an integral part of life. Of special note is the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation, whose substantial grants have made it possible to commission new choral works, feature professional instrumentalists, and develop a sound economic foundation.
Under the direction of Jane Woods, who directed Bel Canto from 1990-1997 and returned to the podium in 2014, Bel Canto looks to the future with commitment to the highest standard in repertoire and performance technique, and dedication to excellence in singing.
Conductors 1977-1979 – Jane Graham 1979-1982 – Donald Cox 1982-1987 – Louis Burkot Fall 1987 – Katharine DeBoer 1988-1989 – J. Scott Ferguson 1989-1990 – Helen Westerfield 1990-1997 – Jane Woods 1997-1999 – Charles Houmard 1999-2001 – Nancy Hayden 2001-2006 – Christopher Creeger 2006-2014 – Hal Sheeler 2014-Present – Jane Woods
Accompanists 1977-2004 – Beverly Gaylord 2004-2011 – Matthew Wiencke 2011-2018 – Pierre Fournier 2019-Present – Jeanne Chambers